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Miss Jocelyn Franklin adjusted the large Venetian straw bonnet that nestled on her dark curls and framed a heart-shaped face of enchanting beauty and firm countenance. As her closed carriage moved slowly along, she surveyed the London streets. It had been four years since her season, four years since she had seen the city's hustle and bustle. Her lips set in a stubborn line at the memory. How angry her father had been as she turned down suitor after suitor.
"I'm giving you only the one season," he had warned grimly. "And after that it's back to Sussex. I'll not pay any longer for such foolishness."
"That's quite all right, Papa," she had assured him. "If, during a whole season, I cannot find a man I can stand the thought of marrying, I shall not expect to find one at a later date."
Somehow this had not raised her father's spirits at all, and she really did not blame him. It must have been quite a trial for the poor man, finding his own stubbornness so well mirrored in his second daughter. But Jocelyn had held firmly to her resolve.
She did not tell her father, for she considered such niceties beyond his comprehension--a comprehension that saw only finances and blood--that she was looking for a man she could respect and love. Among the simpering beaux and exquisites that thronged to the theater and to the opera there were few she could respect, and not one she could love. Of course, at that time the Peninsular War had deprived society of its finest men, so her choice had been limited.
So Jocelyn had returned home to Sussex and resigned herself to the little-coveted condition of spinsterhood. Far better, she told herself firmly, to be the butt of stupid jokesthan to endure a loveless marriage. The rude buffoons who scoffed at a poor woman's unmarried condition could at least be walked away from, but a husband whom one could not love was always there, demanding his rights.
Though the spring day was quite temperate, Jocelyn shivered inside her closed carriage. Nine years had not been sufficient time to wipe from her memory the sight of Maria's tear-stained face after she had been informed that she would marry Edward, Lord Mountcastle. It was not that Mountcastle was a bad man or a rake, but he was more than thrice Maria's seventeen years, and she knew her sister felt no affection for him.
Thirteen-year-old Jocelyn had urged her sister to fight. "Papa can't make you marry anyone," she had reminded her sister. But Maria was too kind and gentle to employ the kind of stubbornness that had later saved--or doomed--Jocelyn. So Maria had gone to the altar, and now, nine years later, she was a widow with two sons to raise.
Jocelyn sighed. She was glad that she and Maria had been regular correspondents. Mountcastle could frank their letters, so they wrote as long and as often as they pleased. And, although Maria's letters had been unfailingly cheerful, it had not taken Jocelyn long to read between the lines.
Poor Maria was longing for something that Mountcastle, in spite of his devotion to her, had been unable to provide. She was longing for someone to love. Absently, Jocelyn toyed with her bonnet ribbon; perhaps she had been so adept at picking up her sister's longing because she herself was sometimes caught with a similar kind of desire. For the moment she dismissed that from her mind; her concern now was for Maria.
Now that her sister's period of mourning was over, she could begin to expect gentlemen callers, suitors who were quite willing to take over Mountcastle's wife and sons--and his fortune. It was this consideration that had brought Jocelyn out of seclusion in Sussex. This time she was going to see that Maria pleased herself in the choice of a husband, but she also wanted to be sure that her gentle, trusting sister was not deceived by some fortune hunter. Better to live alone, she meant to tell Maria, than to live without love and respect.
Jocelyn found that she was twisting her hands nervously in her lap. The prospect of Maria receiving suitors, of having a chance at a new life, had wreaked havoc with her own hard-earned acceptance, and she realized that some vital part of her own self still yearned for a man to love. Well, she told herself briskly, she was not determined to remain a spinster, and if by some miracle a likely man appeared, she would certainly not dismiss him out of hand.
Then she smiled at herself; such thoughts were really rather foolish. Even in Sussex suitors had not ceased calling, but not one had succeeded in changing her mind. Their chances had not been greatly improved by the knowledge that since her parents' death she was quite a wealthy woman and did not need a husband's support ... wealthy in her own right, too, with complete control of her funds. How foolish such men were to think she would be eager to put her fortune and her future in the hands of some simpering weakling like Mr. Ancton, or a bore old enough to be her father, like the pompous Sir Firly. And all for the so-called privilege of being a wife. No, indeed, she was no such fool.
But this thinking was a waste of time. She was in London on Maria's behalf, and that was the end of it. She stopped her musings and looked out her carriage window at the city. The streets were thronged with people, all seemingly going about on purposeful errands. She heard the cries of "Chairs to mend! Chairs to mend!" and saw the mender practically hidden under his burden of rushes.
"Baskets, baskets!" came another call from a pretty young gypsy, hardly more than a child, who smiled under her load.
Cries of "Bellows to mend!" came in one side of the carriage and "Mackerel! Mackerel!" in the other.
Jocelyn smiled to herself. She had always found the city a strange place--amusing, but strange. She had not become used to it in the year she had spent here--her "coming out" year. After her father's death she had considered moving to London, but had decided against it. She had been loath to leave the old house in Sussex. She was comfortable there with her elderly aunt, an unobtrusive chaperone, and was accepted by the neighbors. She was used to doing as she thought best, and by now they were used to it, too, which was fortunate since Jocelyn had never been known to change to please others or to move from a position once she had decided to declare it.
"As stubborn as the old man" she knew the neighbors said when they talked about her, but she did not mind. Life was rather dull in Sussex, and her battles gave them something to talk about.
Jocelyn smiled. It was that very bulldog stubbornness that had endeared her to the "old man"--her father. He would never have left Maria's inheritance in her own hands. She was far too gentle and malleable to take care of herself in the sophisticated and worldly society of the ton.
It was stories of the social marriages, bartering titles for money, that had soured Jocelyn on the whole prospect of marriage. She felt it was quite possible that two relative strangers who married might learn to love--or at least respect--each other. But when the very foundation of their union was greed--what hope could be held for such a relationship?
No. She settled the bonnet more firmly on her head, unconsciously straightening her back. Such doings were not for her.
Absently, she fingered the ribbons that tied the bonnet. Undoubtedly this bonnet was greatly out of style; shapes and even colors changed drastically in only a few years. But she had felt the need for something cheerful when she set out for London, and so without much thought she had picked up the Venetian bonnet with its wreaths of straw and bobbing artificial flowers. She wished now that she had been more conservative in her choice. Her eyes scanned the streets for examples of the current modes, but it was still before noon--no fashionable ladies were about this early. They were probably all still abed, and besides, the coach was still far from the more exclusive areas which were the usual haunts of the ton.
Jocelyn frowned, her arched brows drawing together. Enough silliness about a bonnet; if it wasn't right, she would simply buy another. She meant to get some new gowns while she was in the city; just because she was twenty-two and unmarried did not mean that she had to dress as though she had one foot in the grave. Some fashionable gowns would cheer her up, she thought; lately she had not been feeling as contented as usual. But she must stop thinking of herself; Maria would need cheering and encouragement. She needed to pay attention to her sister's life, not become sentimental about her own.
She looked toward the big box at her feet. It had been four years since she'd seen Maria's boys; Tom was now eight, and Harold was six. She wondered if they would remember their aunt. She felt sure they would like the gift she had brought them--two puppies from Cassie's last litter. They were two of the cutest pups imaginable. Whoever said bulldogs were ugly just did not look at them properly. And they were of excellent stock, their father, Challenger, never having been bested in a fight. She imagined how excited the boys would be. She only hoped they would not both want the same one; that happened so often with children. Looking back, she could remember many times when Maria had given in to her, the stubborn, though younger, sister.
Well, thought Jocelyn, there was no use borrowing trouble, and perhaps this tutor Maria had spoken of--Peter Ferris--would know how to handle such a situation should it arise.
She leaned back against the seat as the carriage moved into the residential districts. Here the houses were larger and more impressive, obviously prized possessions. Jocelyn did not care much for fashion or possessions. The house in Sussex was old and unfashionable, a big barn of a place, but she loved it dearly. It was distinctive and had its own character, something that these newer houses could not hope to equal. As she recalled, she had not cared much for Maria's house on St. James's Square. It had been too ostentatious for her taste, and she wondered how Maria managed to live comfortably amid so much splendor. On reflection, though, Jocelyn supposed that one could learn to live with anything. Perhaps the luxury had been easier to bear than her union with Mountcastle.
It had been apparent that Mountcastle had cared for his young bride, and Jocelyn knew that Maria had been a good and faithful wife to him. She also knew indisputably that Maria longed for someone to truly love and share her life with. Exactly how she knew this, Jocelyn could not say. Perhaps it was because she sensed the same sort of longing deep within herself. In her case it was improbable that she would ever find someone to care for. It was not likely that she would ever meet a man who could best her in an argument, and he certainly had to do at least that to gain her respect.
No, all those sentiments about love and passion that handsome young poets like Lord Byron were fond of running on about--those things, if they existed at all, were for gentle females like Maria, women who could use the guidance of a good man. Jocelyn sighed. She had never met a man with an understanding to equal her own, and by now she was quite sure she would not. Still, she thought, a smile curving her lips, there was certainly no harm in keeping an open mind.
She pulled thoughtfully at a black curl that had stolen from beneath her bonnet which failed to control the unruliness of her dark curls, but was not unbecoming. Jocelyn herself was unaware of her beauty, regarding all compliments as to the fairness of her skin, the texture of her hair, or the brightness of her blue eyes with suspicion born of the knowledge that most men married for money, and her inheritance was considerable. Her twenty-two years sat easily on her, and in spite of the outmoded bonnet, no one seeing her would have assumed her to be anything but Quality.
She stroked one of the velvet squabs. This carriage, with its red velvet upholstery, had been one of her first--and few--extravagances when she had come into her father's money. But the cushions had worn quite well. She really had not thrown her money about or been impulsive; instead, she had learned how to manage it herself. She did not depend upon her steward, for she enjoyed the management of her estate and did not like to trust someone else with her inheritance. She knew to a tuppence where and how her investments were placed.
Jocelyn did not deny that it was pleasant to have money, but sometimes when suitors came to call she was tempted to reconsider. She would rather not have to endure the admiration of those money-hungry aristocrats. She supposed it was not really dishonest for men to choose a wife by the plumpness of her pocket, but she did think they might at least be straightforward about it instead of expecting a woman to swallow a host of empty compliments about skin like lilies and lips like roses.
The trouble with money was that its possessor must always be unsure. Was it herself or her money that had prompted a man's offer? And she could never know--not for certain. Jocelyn leaned back against the cushions and sighed. She had determined on this trip to London to keep Maria from such pitfalls. Of course, she had not told Maria the real reason for this visit, but she meant to keep her eyes open, and woe to anyone who attempted to hurt her beloved sister.
Momentarily Jocelyn wondered about the Viscount Ashburton. As Mountcastle's sister's son, Ashburton had been appointed Maria's guardian. Jocelyn had never met the man, and she hoped to keep it that way. Something in Maria's letters indicated that her sweet-natured sister had found him distressing.
It was unfortunate that he had to be Maria's guardian. Level-headed as she was, Jocelyn had to admit that Maria needed a financial guardian. But, she told herself, Maria needed such a guardian precisely because society had never allowed her to learn how to manage for herself. If it had, she would be perfectly competent to manage her own affairs and those of her sons.
Jocelyn supposed that Mountcastle, who had not cared much for gaming, had left Maria well provided for. Money would not be a problem, except that it would attract fortune hunters. Jocelyn smiled grimly. She had had ample experience in dealing with their ilk. She could see through one at first glance.
The carriage slowed perceptibly and Jocelyn looked out the window. The ton might think St. James's Square was a good place to live, but she did not. Her Sussex sensibilities were offended by the rows of great town houses, their walls abutting each other, reaching up into the sky. A house was meant to sprawl out over a great piece of ground, not to be squeezed and distorted into these pinched-up caricatures that had to be four and five stories high. It was true that land in suburbs like this one was expensive, yet the idea of a great house only two rooms wide struck her as ludicrous.
As the carriage passed slowly on, she let her eyes travel over the houses. The brick was all right--brick always looked substantial--and the iron work was of superb quality. Her father had once taken an interest in the making of ironwork fences, railings, and balconies, and she had found, somewhat to her surprise, that she shared his interest. She knew immediately that this was work of fine quality. The houses were handsome enough, all things considered.
The carriage drew to a halt and Jocelyn looked at the house where she expected to spend the next few months. It looked very much like its neighbors. After spending so much money, thought Jocelyn rather uncharitably, one should at least get a little variety. Then Smithers was opening the carriage door and she let him help her down. The front door of the house opened, too, and Maria came hurrying down the walk toward her.